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NBC-Comcast: A TV Deal for the Post-TV Era

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Giant cable-TV provider Comcast has reached a deal with GE this morning to take over giant entertainment company NBC Universal. This means big changes ahead for 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy, who will have to adapt his core competencies from selling microwave ovens to pushing upgrades on DVR cable boxes. But what does it mean for you as a TV viewer?

In the short term, not much; probably not even that much in the medium term. (For starters, the deal faces an approval process which could take a year.) In the longer term, it says a few things about what the TV business is becoming, and what “TV” will mean in the future:

* For starters, it reminds us how small a part of the package what we recently knew as “TV”—free, over-the-air broadcast entertainment—now is. Comcast, a cable company whose interest is in finding new ways to sell viewers media, be it cable packages or movies on demand, is especially interested in NBCU’s cable and theatrical properties. The Peacock, Jay Leno, The Office, et al., are more or less being thrown in the deal like complimentary floor mats in a new car. Keep in mind that one big reason GE bought NBC way back when was because broadcast TV was valued as a reliable cash cow. Not so much anymore.

*  So what replaces “TV”? Well, more TV, but in different forms. The way mass entertainment worked for a long time was that there were genres that were defined by the machines and venues you used to experience them: a “movie” was what you saw on a big screen in a special building, “TV” was what you saw on a screen in your living room, “radio” came out of a box, etc. Now all the screens and means we have for distributing the same stuff render those distinctions increasingly moot. What Comcast and others envision is a world in which you buy the things you want to see and experience (TV shows, sporting events, movies), when you want to see them, on whichever device you prefer to use—and, of course, you pay and pay and pay for them.

* Speaking of pay and pay and pay: this deal is about online media, too, and the hope of getting you to pay for watching entertainment that way. Hulu is partly owned by NBC, and there’s already been talk of making that a pay service.

* And the movies? This is more speculative, but there is increasing talk about monkeying with the “window”—that is, the amount of time you have to wait after a movie is in theaters before you can see it on demand, download it, rent it, buy it, etc. Take away the window, and the next Twilight movie becomes a high-profile Friday-night TV show. Now, there are plenty of people arguing for preserving the window, but it’s already started to erode for some movies. And what studio might be especially aggressive about experimenting with it? Why, a troubled movie studio… like Universal.

* This is also speculative, but the NBC affiliates—already chafing at how they were thrown under the bus by the decision to give them a weaker news lead-in with Jay Leno—probably have even more reason to be nervous about their place, their importance and their leverage in the Comcast universe. Comcast is a cable company, and is probably not inclined to be too sentimental about the legacy or value of local TV stations.

* Jeff Zucker remains bulletproof. For now, anyway, Though the NBCU chief has been kicked around by TV critics and industry observers for the way he’s run the flagship TV network into fourth place over the past decade, he’ll stay in charge of the enterprise for the time being. And whatever you say about his programming acumen, the deal itself fits with his business vision, namely, that the TV business is now mainly the cable business.

Having said all this, is the merger a good deal? How the hell do I know? I work for Time Warner: you’ve seen how much we know about smart synergistic media mergers! Seriously, the thing I will say is that whether or not the Comcast deal specifically will be a success, it does at least grow out of the right sense of where entertainment media is heading. Of course, so, in a general sense, did the AOL and Time Warner merger, in that it recognized the importance of the Internet: the problem was deciding that AOL was the right company to take advantage of it, and grossly overvaluing AOL in the deal.

NBC and Comcast, in other words, probably have the right idea about where media is going. That doesn’t mean this is the best means to get there. Now they’ll just have to unravel the tangled cable of this deal, and see where it leads.

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